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18.09.2021 10:00 by Catharina Flämig
Istanbul, the 15-million strong metropolis on the Bosporus, is the only city in the world that spans two continents: Europe and Asia. Istanbul’s utterly unique and magical character is largely thanks to it being a bridge between these two different parts of the world. Thousands of years of history have left their mark on the metropolis, creating a fascinating city-sized collage of magnificent buildings from multiple, different eras.
If you love marvelling at a variety of architectural styles and are fascinated by different historical eras and cultures, then there is no place better to visit than Istanbul! There is plenty to discover in this huge city, so if you are only visiting for a few days, it’s advisable to plan what you would like to see in advance. Below you will find our list of top sights in Istanbul:
1) Old town of Sultanahmet with Hippodrome
2) Hagia Sofia and Blue Mosque
3) Yerebatan Cistern
4) Topkapi Palace
Is this your first time in Istanbul? Then we suggest taking at least one full day to explore the old town of Sultanahmet, located in the Eminönü district. Here the historical heart of the city beats the loudest. A number of Istanbul’s most famous sights are grouped around the ancient hippodrome, which once served as a horse racetrack in the middle of the city.
The Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Camii) can be found right next to the hippodrome. This masterpiece of Ottoman architecture is the largest and most magnificent mosque in Istanbul. The name “Blue Mosque” comes from the stunning blue and white tiles that decorate the entire interior. A trip to Istanbul would not be complete without a visit to this spectacular building withs its six minarets that characterize the old town.
Please abide by these rules when visiting mosques:
- Remove footwear at the entrance
- Ensure that arms and legs are covered
- Women should also cover their hair with a scarf
- Remain behind those praying and respect the silence
Opposite the Blue Mosque you will find the Hagia Sofia, possibly the most famous building in Istanbul. Built in the 6th century, it was once considered the mightiest church in the Christian world and the eighth wonder of the world thanks to its magnificent marble and mosaic interior. The Hagia Sofia was used as a cathedral for the Christian Orthodox community until the end of the Byzantine Empire. After the conquest of Istanbul by the Ottomans, it was converted into a mosque, which is clearly reflected in the interior and exterior design of the building.
Close to the Hagia Sofia, you will find the extraordinary Yerebatan Cistern or Basilica Cistern, the Turkish name for which the translates to “sunken palace”. An excursion down under the city of Istanbul is a truly unique and magical experience. This subterranean wonder is a 140-meter long, 65-meter wide water reservoir from late antiquity, which Emperor Justinian had built in the 6th century AD as a water reservoir for the Great Palace. The cistern is arranged in twelve rows, has a total of 336 well-preserved columns supporting the brick vault and has a capacity of about 80,000 cubic meters. The lighting with its added water reflected charm creates a unique, almost surreal atmosphere. Hollywood has also been captivated by this magical place with it appearing as the setting in various famous films such as the James Bond "From Russia with Love " starring Sean Connery and Dan Brown's "Inferno" starring Tom Hanks.
Topkapı is the last stop in Eminönü. For the gigantic Sultan's Palace, you should be sure to plan plenty of time. The extensive grounds were once the centre of the Ottoman Empire. The name Topkapı comes from the vernacular meaning "Cannon Gate" Palace. The palace has a dominant position and offers a sweeping view over the Bosporus. The high walls stretched from the Golden Horn to the Marmara Sea, separating the palace, which covers an area of 700,000 m2, from the rest of the city. Inside the walls, the palace is divided into four inner courtyards, each separated from one another. The palace is also home studios, reception rooms, mosques, bathrooms, gardens, kitchens, libraries and – of course – a harem. Visiting Topkapı means travelling through 500 years of remarkable history!
Istanbul's bazaars are legendary and amaze anyone who visits time and time again. Be it the Egyptian Market (Mısır Çarşısı), located directly on the famous Galata Bridge in Eminönü, or the Grand Bazaar (Kapalı Çarşı), which with its more than 4,000 shops is the city's shopping mecca, you can't get closer to the 1001 Nights atmosphere than here. The Egyptian Market is the perfect place to find all kinds of spices, tea, dried fruits and sweets, while the Grand Bazaar has everything you could possibly associate with an oriental market from fabrics, carpets, and silk goods, to colourful lamps, leather goods, jewellery, antiques, and much more. Even those who don’t like shopping will find it hard to resist the special magic of these covered market halls! Daniel Craig as James Bond raced over the roofs of the Grand Bazaar in the 2012 film “Skyfall”.
The most beautiful view over the old town and the Bosporus is from the Galata Tower in the Beyoglu district. The best way to reach this striking tower from Eminönü is on foot over the Galata Bridge. After passing the numerous people fishing, you reach the other side of the river, where you can decide either to take the funicular Tünel up to Beyoglu or simply to stroll through the beautiful alleys to the Galata Tower.
The view from the top is exceptional: high above the rooftops of Istanbul you will be able to see the incredible scale of the city. It is quite possible that you will ask yourself the same question many have asked before while looking out at the unforgettable view of the countless boats sailing on the Bosporus: Where are all these ships going?
Istiklal Caddesi (Independence Street) is the largest promenade in the modern part of the city and connects Tünel with Taksim Square. Of course, it is possible to take the historic tram, but it is much more exciting to walk. Along the way you pass shop after shop and in between these you will find countless cafés and restaurants where you can take a moment to relax and watch the city pass by. The Taksim Square, which is located at the highest point of Beyoglu, is the most important traffic junction in Istanbul. From there you can travel in almost any direction you wish. The square is also home to the Monument to the Republic and the Atatürk Cultural Centre. Directly adjacent to the Taksim Square lies Gezi Park, one of the last major parks in downtown Istanbul.
With the Islamic influenced appearance of the city today, it is hard to believe that the headquarters of the Orthodox Church is still located in the heart of Istanbul. St. George's Cathedral in the Phanar quarter in Istanbul is the headquarters of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. The Patriarch sees himself as the honorary head of all Orthodox Churches and all people of Orthodox faith worldwide and is therefore the highly revered head of about 300 million Christians. The complex is well-worth seeing with its beautifully designed courtyard and the imposing church with its precious furnishings, in particular the wood-carved iconostasis. If you are longing for a little break from the hustle and bustle of Istanbul, this is a true oasis of tranquillity!
"And there on the other bank, that's where Asia really begins", the line from BAP's song "Istanbul", perfectly describes the aspect of Istanbul that many visitors find the most fascinating: the fact that simply crossing the Bosporus takes you to another continent! A visit to the other side of the waterway is well worthwhile. In the Asian part of the city, there is a mile-long promenade that hugs the shore. From here you can take a small boat and visit the Maiden's Tower (Kiz Kulesi), also known as Leander's Tower, located on a tiny island.
There are numerous cafés along the promenade where you can relax on the comfortable cushions on the steps and enjoy the view over the Bosporus. This is the ideal opportunity to enjoy the two Turkish national drinks; tea and salep! Salep is a hot, sweet milk drink, which is particularly popular in winter, as it warms you up from the inside.
A visit to Istanbul would not be complete without a tour of the Bosporus, as it is a truly different experience to see the city from the water. There are many different ways to explore the famous waterway that connects the Mediterranean with the Black Sea. This can be easily done by Liner, on a Hop-On-Hop-Off-Cruise or on an organised Dinner-Cruise, which can be combined with dinner on board and a splendid view of the illuminated city in the evening.
If you have a little more time, consider taking a trip to the Princes’ Islands (Kızıl Adalar). The archipelago 20 km southeast of the Bosporus in the Sea of Marmara consists of a total of nine islands, four of which are inhabited. The idyllic islands, home to exceptional Victorian wooden architecture, are not only ideal for swimming but also for taking a stroll, hiking, or cycling.
Istanbul has many great museums, but the most extraordinary are the MOMA (Museum of Modern Art) and Orhan Pamuks 'Museum of Innocence'. Orhan Pamuk, who was born in and lives in Istanbul, is one of the most internationally renowned contemporary Turkish writers. The 2006 Nobel Laureate in Literature has written sensational books such as "Snow", "My Name is Red" and "A Strangeness in my Mind".
However, the author’s favourite project is his novel "Museum of Innocence" and the museum of the same name, which is located in a small, dark red house in the Çukurcuma quarter on the Bosporus. Here, illusion and reality unite under one roof. The novel tells of the love between Kemal and the beautiful Füsun. On display in the museum are those things that the character Kemal connects with his memories of his beloved, including photographs, old film posters and postcards, boxes full of buttons, dresses, make-up utensils, tickets, lottery tickets, glasses and much more. The building itself is said to have been their home between 1975 and 1984. You can visit the museum without having read the novel and likewise you can read the novel without having visited the museum. However, those who combine both will be part of an extraordinary art project and will also be rewarded at the entrance: anyone who brings the novel "Museum of Innocence" to the museum does not have to pay the entrance fee!
The MOMA is another noteworthy museum in Istanbul. Opening in 2004 in the Beyoglu district, the largest piece of art is arguably the building itself. Huge panoramic windows give visitors unique views of the Bosporus, which lies directly in front of the building and thus becomes part of the exhibition fitting in wonderfully with the contemporary art on display.
Istanbul on Bike is not for the faint-hearted and therefore only recommended for experienced cyclists who are used to cycling in heavy traffic. However, if those who dare to do so will definitely be rewarded, as experiencing the city from the seat of a bicycle is a truly new experience. Be it the Old City Tour, Golden Horn Tour or Eurasia Tour: if decide to take part in a guided bike tour of Istanbul, you can look forward to exploring the urban jungle accompanied by competent guides who will show you the way and tell you all about the city and its history.
You can visit Istanbul all year round. The best time to travel is from March to June and in September and October. During these months, the weather is pleasantly mild with little rain, making it the perfect time for those wishing to experience Istanbul to the fullest. For art lovers who would like to explore the cultural treasures of the metropolis, the winter months from November to February are particularly suitable.
Would you like to take a trip to the “city of two continents” without having to organize your stay or find your way around the big city on your own?
Islandhopping has the all-round carefree solution: our 4-day tour "Istanbul Exclusive" offers an organized program with a certified guide to show you the most important sights while leaving you enough time to explore the city yourself or to relax and enjoy the unique atmosphere of Istanbul.
The tour includes transfer from Istanbul Airport to your accommodation, three nights in a boutique hotel in Sultanahmet, entrance to the Hagia Sophia, a boat trip on the Bosphorus, a 4-course dinner on the Bosphorus, and a 2-day cultural tour with a certified guide.